FEW causes for optimism as Celtic head to a country where they have never won with a grim away record, writes Andrew Smith
A fear and dread is entitled to envelop any Celtic follower when considering their team’s Champions League assignment away to Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday. Following their dismantling by the Bundesliga side at their supposed Parkhead citadel the other week, Celtic effectively need snookers to retain any prospect of playing in Europe beyond Christmas. This week, then, they need to produce a multi-cushion pot and turn one point from three games into four from four.
Never mind that the club have never won in Germany – or in any of the three leading football nations on mainland Europe, for that mater. Or that there is the other slight issue of them having claimed only one victory across, eh, 28 outings in the competition proper… a tally which covers group and last 16 ties.
Granted, these desperate statistics cannot be laid at the door of Brendan Rodgers. The club’s record loss on the continent – 7-0 in Barcelona on their last foreign excursion – can, though. As is true of the eye-watering 2-0 filleting away to Hapoel Beer-sheva in the qualifiers. To say nothing of the mortifying 1-0 defeat to Gibraltar part-timers Lincoln Red Imps on the Irishman’s first cross-border outing. Indeed, in terms of away form, with this trio of losses Rodgers has presided over some of the most excruciating evenings in the club’s half-century plus in Europe. The Irishman’s commitment to expansive football is laudable. It allows him to fit like a glove as he is a Celtic manager who, truly and naturally, is at one with the club’s attacking traditions. Yet, the odd – very odd – occasion that Celtic have stood their ground away from home in the Champions League in leading football nations has tended to require them to adopt a rope-a-dope approach. To cite just two examples, it was a blanket defensive strategy that allowed Martin O’Neill’s side to draw in the Nou Camp 12 years ago and Neil Lennon’s side to come within minutes of emulating that result in 2012.
“Believe it or not I did try [that]… in Barcelona, it just didn’t work,” said Rodgers of his back-five formation in the 7-0 slaying in the Nou Camp. I tried to be pragmatic, a bit more defensive. We couldn’t have put any more at the back. Listen, I can adapt. Of course we have been working on a way of playing but you have to respect the opponent as well.
“I’m not daft enough to think there’s only one way to play the game. I have enough experience now to have a belief and confidence in how we work and how we want to play in the majority of games. We still always look to play football but there can be moments when counter attack football is very effective. Depending on the opponent of course. Most people would’ve said [the 3-3 home draw with] Manchester City was a game to come in and sit and don’t give them space to play. But our intent to impose our style on them has started off a trend for others Each game is different and you have to approach it that way.”
Celtic’s three-man central defensive shape may have offered little protection against Barca, but if Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar are fit and in the mood, any team in the world can come up short. That bitter Nou Camp experience shouldn’t make Rodgers reticent to bolster his backline in Borussia-Park in two days’ time. In his four away games he has never fielded the same defence. The injury to left-back Kieran Tierney means it will be a fifth different defence.
Kolo Toure hasn’t played since he scolded himself for being a 35-year-old playing like a 16-year-old when guilty of the two errors that led to Gladbach claiming a 2-0 win when the clubs met in Glasgow. As he has worked his way towards full fitness, Jozo Simunovic has formed a solid domestic partnership with Erik Sviatchenko, with Toure only appearing to be dusted down for Champions League encounters. Rodgers suggest there may be issues in switching to a three/five in defence, but he will surely seriously consider the switch.
“Kolo coming back into the reckoning depends if he’s going to be fit or not and that’s the only reason there’s been changes in that position. Just purely with fitness. Jozo, at this stage, is probably unable to play two or three games a week and, naturally, if the games fall very quickly then it’s difficult for Kolo in terms of recovery. That’s natural but whoever plays will be at their best and give it their best.
“Kolo will always give his best. He was devastated after the last game. He was man enough to stand up and say that. He’s a true warrior and you don’t get to achieve what he has in the game at 35 and be here without that strong mentality. Any game I’ve ever had, especially away from home in tough places, he’s been one of the leading players, so if I need to call upon him he’ll be ready.”
As ready as anyone else in Celtic colours, no doubt. Rodgers doesn’t fixate on that rarely being ready enough on foreign soil. “For us, it’s the next game. Of course, we will probably be expected to lose, like we were the Man City game but we have to ensure we can impose our style onto them and put them on the back foot. We never did that enough in the last game, so we want to improve that element.”